Archive for the ‘other sides to this life’ Category

300px-The_Good_Soldier_First_Edition,_Ford_Madox_Ford   It is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Ford Madox Ford’s pre-First World War novel, The Good Soldier, a seminal book of the 20th centuryIt opens with this sentence: “This is the saddest story I ever heard,”–spoken by the narrator, John Dowell—my part, in the Granada TV adaptation filmed in 1980. It was poignant for me to retrace my steps, 30 years later, from the fountain in Bad Nauheim, where I had once been greeted by Roger Hammond as the Grand Duke: “Good morning, Mr. Dowell!”.


Revisiting Bad Nauheim, 30 years after the filming.

I am the sole surviving actor of Ford Madox Ford’s doomed quartet —who made the film of The Good Soldier 35 years ago. Jeremy Brett, Vickery Turner (r) and Susan Fleetwood (l)–all died too young. Susan was only 51! All had so much more to give. Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 10.09.02 AM Meredith and I were in Germany to pursue another project, but passing so close to Bad Nauheim, on our way to Frankfurt, we couldn’t resist the short detour from the motor-way.

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Bad Nauheim has an association with Elvis Presley, who lived there while stationed nearby during his military service with the U.S. Army.

Meredith admired the film and knew Susan. I had spent three intense weeks there in the autumn of 1980, much of the time as elegant set-dressing (so it seemed to us!), for this extraordinary Edwardian spa town. We walked and walked, in line of four, dressed in pre-war finery without–it seemed–a care in the world. Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 10.20.43 AM     Bad Nauheim is still a spa town, but the beautiful Sprudelhof bath buildings (built between 1905 and 1911 in what the Germans call the Jugendstil style) are open only for special guided tours–and sadly none were available over the days we were there.


Despite its proximity to Frankfurt and Hitler’s command complex, Bad Nauheim was spared from Allied bombing allegedly because President Roosevelt had fond memories of his visit there.

However we managed to slip into one of the bath houses, opened by maintenance workers for cleaning, and it looked exactly as it had 30 years ago–indeed probably as it had 100 years ago. Elegant bath cubicles line the corridor (where Florence took her cure). Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 3.56.39 PM

Pretty interior courtyards and reception rooms are decorated with shells, mosaics, stained glass and wrought iron–every fitting finely-crafted in the art nouveau style.

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Until director Kevin Billington sent me the script, I was unfamiliar with The Good Soldier.  I later regretted that my first contact with the story was via the screenplay, rather than the novel itself—thereby missing out on the mystery angle of the story—the gradual way Ford peels his onion, slowly revealing what lay beneath the facade of the four elegant walkers, “all good people”.


Ford Madox Ford changed his name after WW I, reportedly because he thought Hueffer sounded too German.

The adaptation–loyal to the novel–was written by the English screenwriter and playwright, Julian Mitchell. Filming took three months, on location in England and Germany (extended by a labour dispute at Granada TV involving the shooting of Jewel In The Crown–which delayed our schedule too). I had recently played another diffident American, Robert Acton, in Merchant Ivory’s production of the Henry James novel, The Europeans. Perhaps Kevin saw it. Though there are comic possibilities in playing innocence–three months is a long time to spend with John Dowell— someone so blindly and determinedly, out of touch with the truth.


Almost by definition we could not film the book in sequence and Kevin helped us all hang on to the arc of each of our character’s complicated and intersecting narratives. He had a firm grip on the ‘unpeeling onion’ and we were grateful to him for that. Yet while admiring his exigence and his quest for perfection, we found the endless “clothes-horse” aspect of the filming difficult.

The scene where the two couples meet for the first time, in the dining room of the hotel, for instance, was filmed FIFTY-SEVEN times from every conceivable angle! The local German extras, initially excited to be in a film, decided by lunchtime that they never wanted to be in another one–not even for ready money!

The film does look sensational though–brilliantly shot by Tony Pierce Roberts. The pace and style evoke so well the pre-war era–soon to be killed off and changed for ever by the coming carnage, launched on August the 4th– Florence’s birthday, wedding day and the day on which she commits suicide. No coincidence!

Filming back in England hopped from one “Great House” to another. Some retained the faded charm of the period—of a class feeling the pinch, if not exactly on its uppers. In one, there was a strong reminder of the devastation the First World War wreaked in social and human terms. The large brick-walled kitchen garden was still visible, as were the magnificent greenhouses—but dilapidated and neglected since the twenties–the men who had made them flourish, all slaughtered in France.

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Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939)

Writing in 1915—one hundred years ago—Ford Madox Ford foresaw that this was the end of an era. Edward Ashburham’s world–complacent and arrogant—was doomed. Strange that John Dowell, the unconvincing Quaker and “casual Yankee”, was so much in awe of it—and indeed joined it.

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Jeremy Brett, later famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, played Edward Ashburnham, the “Good Soldier”.

The strain of the long shoot, began to take its toll towards the end. It was the day of Nancy’s (Elizabeth Garvie) departure and we were filming the buggy ride to the station. “Pony’s going well!”

A little too well I thought–given that Edward/Jeremy was driving it and not the horsemaster!

The director wanted a shot of us driving over the hump-backed railway bridge, on our way to the forecourt. It would certainly have had a poignancy to it, but I could only picture the frisky pony taking off down the steep descent, and Jeremy not being able to control it.

Memories came to mind of a near-fatal accident, while filming the BBC series Poldark in Cornwall. The coach I was in, turned over on a rock on Bodmin Moor and the cameraman, who was tied to the side of it, was lucky to escape with a broken leg. I was in shock and couldn’t speak for three hours afterwards without bursting into tears.

Kevin insisted that it was perfectly safe. I found myself getting out of the buggy and demanding loudly whether he’d allow his young children do the shot. “Yes– of course,” he replied. I stomped down to the platform and into the waiting room; where I stripped off my costume, and that was the end of the buggy ride.

Perhaps after months of being unassuming John Dowell, something of Robin Ellis had to be let loose again! You can watch the entire film of The Good Soldier on YouTube now!


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…would have been 80 last Sunday.

His plays and films for television were transformative and innovative in the methods of their telling.

In Pennies from Heaven actors mime the words to popular songs.

In The Singing Detective the action spins into multiple layers from the mind of the central character lying in a bed suffering from psoriatic arthritis–a condition that plagued Dennis Potter himself.

In 1978 I was cast as John in Blue Remembered Hills, a film about group of children in the West Country during the Second World War, whose fathers are off at war and who terrorise first a squirrel—then one of their own, whom they christen Donald Duck.

The trick here was that we ADULT actors were to play the seven-year-olds.

Potter’s view of the children’s interaction was dark and the ending is cataclysmic.

Our gang consisted of Colin Welland, John Bird, Michael Elphick, Helen Mirren and Janine Duvitski (whose daughter, Ruby Bentall, touched hearts recently as Verity in Poldark).


Poor persecuted Donald Duck was played  by Colin Jeavons.


Before filming started, we spent time observing children–mostly outside school playgrounds–trying to remember ourselves as seven-year-olds.

I learned how quickly children can change mood–be distracted–shift focus.

It was valuable.

Nobody questioned what we were doing, peering through the mesh fence of a school playground—but they might have felt it odd to see a group of grown-ups showing such an unusual interest in children at play.

We couldn’t do it now without going through hoops.

After a week’s research and rehearsal, we assembled for the read through with Dennis Potter in attendance.

We were nervous about this first essay at being seven-year-olds–especially doing it in front of THE AUTHOR.

In rehearsal, we thought our research was paying off—and at least vocally we were finding our “inner” seven-year-olds.

The physical stuff we HOPED would follow from finding the voices.

As the reading ended, seven eager, animated faces turned towards Potter’s end of the table.

“Well, you’ve got it all to do!” was his only comment.

He was right–though a little on the nose–brutal even!

As developing seven-year-olds we got over it quickly and moved down to Mere in Somerset, standing in the Forest of Dean–where Potter grew up and still lived.

On location we looked a strange crew in our boy’s shorts and girl’s dresses.

Michael Elphick and I would saunter down to the local pub after the unit lunch to have a half pint of Guinness, perhaps subconsciously stocking up with a bit of Dutch courage for the no-holds-barred fight we were scripted to have.

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Helen and Janine played at being mums wheeling an old pram around taunting the boys.


Colin Jevons skulked in the barn–lonely and miserable, missing his dad.

In a retrospective review for The Guardian in 2008, critic Peter Bradshaw enthused about the film and singled out Colin Jeavons performance.

Ten years after it was first shown, Meredith and I were getting married and our bridesmaid was to be seven-year-old  Cait–Meredith’s niece.

Poor Cait wasn’t keen to wear the bridesmaid’s get-up and she had no playmates to keep her entertained.

So to distract her we put on the video of Blue Remembered Hills–all those seven-year-olds, just her age, albeit no Disney film!

It worked–in fact on the morning of the wedding we came downstairs at seven to start making breakfast for visiting family from the States and there was Cait sitting quietly on the floor in front of the television rewatching the film.,

We clearly convinced Cait–but did we ever convince Mr Potter?


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The scuttlebutt on guinea fowl is that it tends to end up dry.

This wonderfully simple and quick way defies that received wisdom, keeping this tasty alternative to chicken moist.


The guinea fowl here are usually smaller than chicken and so take less cooking time.

for 4

1 guinea fowl–about 1k/2lbs


2 tbs olive oil

half a lemon

sprigs of thyme

a garlic clove

salt and pepper

Set the oven to 400F/200C

Place the bird in a oven pan

Pour the olive oil over the bird and spread it well in by hand or brush.

Put the lemon, thyme and garlic into the cavity.

Season generously with salt and pepper.

Put the pan in the middle of the oven.

After fifteen minutes take the pan out and carefully tip it to collect the juices.

Spoon these all over the bird.

Return it to the oven.

After a further 15 minutes repeat the process.

This is the secret of succulent guinea fowl–regular basting.

Fifteen minutes later take the pan out–it should be nicely browned–and test for doneness by poking the  tip of a knife into the place where the leg joins the body. If the juices run clear, it is done.

If not–baste it again as before and roast for a little longer.

Remove the bird to a warm plate and let it rest covered with foil for fifteen minutes.


To make a little gravy, tip the pan and spoon off most of the fat, add a good splash of white wine or stock and carefully up-end the bird over the pan, tipping out any juices that have collected inside the cavity.

Heat the juices gradually, stirring and scraping the while.

Carve and serve.

We had it the other night with Fennel Gratin from Healthy Eating for Life.





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“Is there any of that guinea fowl leftover?”

“A little–not much–do you want it with the spinach and rice torta*?”

“I’d like it with some red onion confit

“OK–not sure I want to…just made the torta…”

I’m a pushover though—and find myself slicing red onions five minutes later!

It is really not difficult and would be delicious with the guinea fowl and/or the tortas–or whatever!


(The roast guinea fowl recipe is the simplest and quick. I’ll publish it tomorrow.)

Red onion confit recipe:

Peel two red onion and slice them thinly. (Next time I’ll slice them thickly–like Frank Cooper’s Coarse Cut Oxford Marmalade of my youth!)


Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a pan, add the onions and season with salt and pepper.


Over a medium heat cook them down–as chefs are in the habit of saying–for 15 minutes, stirring the while.

I added three teaspoons of balsamic vinegar and kept stirring while the liquid evaporates.

That’s it!


“Ummm–LOVE that taste!”


“Your wish is my command,”I say, bowing extravagantly.

* from Delicious Dishes for diabetics.

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I’m spending the morning in the kitchen–cooking! Life has been a little distracting recently–I’m enjoying a change of costume. No sign of a wig either! IMG_0376 Haven’t done these little beauties for some time. I bought a few courgettes (zucchini) at the organic market last week–the first of the season. I was surprised to see them but happy because I’d found a brilliant source of fresh coriander and had enough to  cook an occasional but favorite dish from Delicious Dishes… Spicy Prawns with Coriander. I foolishly cut corners and bought some frozen raw prawns from the supermarket that turned out mushy and the dish was rubbish. The recipe’s good though and worth trying–if you can find the coriander.. There are two of these shiny new courgettes left in the crisper. I look up the recipe (in Delicious Dishes)–2 courgettes, it says!–perfect. I don’t have any emmental cheese but use a creamy soft brebis (sheep’s cheese) instead with a little added parmesan.  Courgette Muffins

2 courgettes – unpeeled and grated 2 tbsp Emmental cheese – grated 4 tbsp onion – grated 1 tbsp fine breadcrumbs – wholewheat or rye salt and pepper 2 eggs

  1. Heat the oven at 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6.
  2. Combine the first four ingredients, season well and mix thoroughly.


  1. Check the seasoning and fold in the eggs.
  2. Oil the muffin cups. This amount is enough to fill one of those rubber trays of twelve.


  1. Fill each cup with the mixture and carefully transfer to the middle of the oven.
  2. Bake for 30–40 minutes–they should be springy and nicely brown.


  1.  You could serve these on a tablespoon of tomato coulis–(tomato sauce put through a sieve).

We had them with a spoonful of white beans in tomato sauce and a poached egg. Meredith thought they a tadge too moist–needed another couple of minutes. I liked them as they were..! IMG_0379

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Last week, my tum was upset–I won’t go into detail!

We diabetics, need to eat regularly, but I wasn’t fancying much–so what exactly?

Rice says Meredith–bland and filling–less of a challenge to the digestion.

I like our rice–brown basmati–but not hugely, if I can put it like that.

Dragging myself to the health food shop I spotted some good looking broccoli–late season but fresh and green.

Lightly seasoned rice with added flecks of chopped parsley or coriander topped with steaming broccoli and a swirl of olive oil?

Little effort and easy on the stomach.

I had seconds!



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The other morning Meredith noticed something out of the ordinary had been at the little dry food pellets (kibble) in a cat bowl.

Munched into dust, almost.

“Uh-uh! whose been nibbling at the cat food?”

Concerned speculation…

Was it a mouse? A rogue cat from over the way? Or was it a “doesn’t-bear-thinking-about”?

Time to take up the cat food bowls overnight and be on the lookout for unwelcome visitors.

The following morning, I’m sitting in my chair after breakfast checking through the email when something catches my eye….

I look up and focus on the cat bowl at the entrance to the larder.

Something is there, and it isn’t a cat. The feline population are all outside sunning themselves, having eaten their fill for the moment.

Not a cat–but what?

It is facing me–snout first, full on–difficult to see clearly. First thought–a RAT!

Worst fears, lift legs, shout for Meredith…?

THEN, I pull focus more finely and see the plump, little body of the beast and the tell-tale spines sillouetted against the light streaming through the open back door.

RELIEF! Legs  down, call softly to Meredith….

It’s a baby hedgehog!

Meredith peers round the entrance and sees the “uninvited visitor” and laughs.

“There you are!” she says quietly to the youngster with the adventurous heart.

The frame freezes as we all take in the situation.

The baby hedgehog is the first to move.

It skittles back into the larder which has clearly been its home for a day or two.

“You’ll have to wear gloves”, I say irrelevantly, as Meredith disappears towards the tool shed.

Back she comes wearing her hedgehog handlers and the rest of the story tells itself…


Spot anyone hiding out in the larder?






Pippa, head cat, is unimpressed.



“Well, that wasn’t so bad…”


Master Intrepid returns!

Later that same day as Meredith sat in front of the computer, who does she spy but young Master Intrepid making his way from the front door this time into the kitchen, heading toward the cat bowls by the back door.

Needs must when the stomach wills?

Or innocent insouciance, carefree and fearless?

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